There is no question that there is a story here, about an otherwise nice city and an otherwise nice cop who is married to a rather understanding Englishwoman. But it is not a story about the city and the cop and the Englishwoman in the 1960s.
It is not enough to reference an occasional Communist, to talk about Reds, or to look for a microdot. Crimes, too, need to be referenced with other crimes on the street at the time. To write about a cop in the sixties is not to write about a cop in 2011, without the cell phone , the laptop and the extra 30 pounds. Something must be also be said about what people who the cop doesn’t know assume, believe, and feel. What are the truisms of 1967? What are the common sense things that “everybody” knows so well that nobody needs to say anything about? Still yet, what are the things that nobody talks about and everybody sort of knows? Things not spoken earmark an era.
Unfortunately, the sixties just seem to get in the way of this story. The characters, however, are strong and sturdy types and deserve a place in 21st century Connecticut or New York or London. As do the criminals, and the sexual deviances.
A few Jewish words referring to a few ritual baked goods eaten by a few Jews does not a Jewish novel make. Nor does a description of a modestly clad woman with her hair tied back by a long scarf. If the Peter Decker novels wielded some specific charm by virtue of their glimpse into orthodox Jewish life, that charm is gone. Gone too is the charm of an utterly believable relationship of utterly believable characters: husband and wife Peter and Rina. Instead we have an infinitely patient, infinitely wise, infinitely understanding wife who agrees with her husband agreeably, and a pouty teenaged daughter that contributes nothing to the conversation or the scenery but red hair. A police procedural on Prozac.
Gwenda gets off the boat at Plymouth, hires a car, looks for village to live in. And finds one: a perfectly charming cottage with aga, a kitchen garden and flowered wallpaper. Gwenda moves in with her rosewood, her mahogany, her papermache, her chintz and all the fabrics of domesticity. She feels from the start that the house and the garden are familiar; she knows in advance where the doors are and where they ought to be, she imagines the wallpaper of a room and then discovers the very same wallpaper in a boarded up cupboard. There is something uncannily familiar about the house from the start.
By the end of the first week she has had one or two hallucinations, and thinks perhaps that she is going mad. She meets Miss Marple who suggests that there may be another way to explain her familiarity with the house. Perhaps she has lived in the house before. Which is of course a perfectly sensible English alternative to Freud: “You are not mad; your house is old, your ancestors are ugly, your hallucinations are memories and best avoided.” But this is impossible. Gwenda is from New Zealand, and she is curious.
What she finds unsurprisingly is murder.
After the funeral, there is the family and the village. There is a batty aunt, a hysterical and heirless English lord, his ancient butler, and a smattering of inadequate and weak-willed in-laws, waiting for their share. These are the leftovers of the comfortable class, who married badly and relied on unreliable servants. Unlike Miss Gilchrist, who knew how to cook, and ran a pretty little teashop before the war.
Once upon a time, when the Bronx was a happy Italian village full of children in Catholic school uniforms, public schools measured reading levels in Grades: first grade, second grade, third grade. Easy peasy. Consider your contemporary girly fiction, focused on 29 year old nitwits going shopping: second grade reading level. Consider, too, your average add-an-egg-and-mix murder mystery: the latest Carolyn Hart, for example: second grade reading level. Libraries must stop ordering and re-ordering these Walmart quality timekillers and discover the beautiful prose of new and lovely conjurers — Louise Penny, and her new A Rule For Murder, for example.
Once upon a time, in a movie made long ago, there was a beautiful fairy who helped a poor little girl. You do not remember the movie. You remember the voice. It is the voice of Mary Peiffer.
This time the movie is not about a little girl. It is in fact not even a movie. It is a book, about a woman, who comes from Alaska, and lives in the cold, with dogs.
Mary Peiffer’s lovely, ringing, good witch voice, turns every book into a fairy tale. Sometimes the tale is about not so little girls who grow curiouser and curiouser. Sometimes the girls get into trouble and sometimes they almost die. But always they are found by a voice which wraps itself around them like a shawl against time.
CJ Critt’s sweet, well enunciated, sing song voice turns even a murder mystery into a fairy tale. Once upon a time, Judge Knott (pronounced Judge not!) found a book of manners, probably given to newly engaged 19th century women preparing for wedding, marriage and domestic life.
Each chapter begins with a maxim or rule of etiquette, which sets up the story content. Manners, social customs, rituals, ceremonies, are something a bride needs to know before she becomes a member of the married class. They structure and organize her life, and yet they are not the same as law. It is interesting to discover such mores alongside the local law, interpreted and applied by Judge Knott as she prepares for her own 21st century wedding.
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